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Tornado strikes rural Fennimore Sunday evening
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A portion of roof from a storage shed on County Highway Q rests against fallen trees near the driveway of Michael and Nancy Porters residence. - photo by Robert Callahan photo

A swift-moving severe thunderstorm spawned a tornado east of Fennimore Sunday night, leaving devastation in its wake.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for northeastern Grant County just before 10 p.m. on June 29 in response to radar-indicated rotation in the Fennimore, Preston and Castle Rock areas.

Tornado sirens sounded in Fennimore as strong winds toppled trees throughout the city.

“There are a number of trees that were damaged to the extent that they will probably have to be removed,” Director of Public Works Dennis Biddick said. “On top of that, there are all kinds of trees that had large limbs come down.”

Biddick had hoped cleanup related to the storm would take a couple days. He learned Monday that will not be the case.

“Our guys will probably be out working all week trying to keep up,” he said Monday night. “They spent all day today cleaning up trees.”

A tree fell near a house in the 600 block of Jefferson Street, but did not cause any structural damage.

Fennimore residents in the northeast quadrant of the city were without power Sunday night for approximately 45 minutes and were in the dark again Monday afternoon.

“A lot of the damage was confined to the north half of town,” Biddick said.

Two semi-trailers were overturned by high winds at Bard Materials north of Fennimore. Several trees were damaged in Marsden Park.

“We were really, really fortunate,” Biddick said. “Any trees that came down seemed to miss any structures.”

Biddick was among those thankful for a quick response from neighboring fire departments Sunday night.

“The Lancaster and Boscobel fire departments were up here last night cutting up trees that were in the streets before our guys got out there,” he said.

The cleanup began Monday morning in  rural Fennimore as well.

Joe Napp of Stitzer rents a large storage shed on the Michael and Nancy Porter property at 13387 County Highway Q. The storm tore a portion of the roof off the shed and felled an interior wall.

As Napp and friends worked Monday to repair the wall, he was not yet aware if it was a tornado or straight-line winds that caused the damage.

“I would sure think it was a tornado,” he said. “I have never been around one, but if it wasn’t, I would be amazed.”

Despite a sizable hole in the roof, the contents of the shed were mostly unscathed.

“There is a truck that got scuffed up a little bit and some stuff in the shop got re-arranged, but other than that it made a big mess out of everything,” Napp said. “This old building has been through a lot.”

A glance out the shed’s door across County Highway Q revealed a hillside of trees broken in half.

“Straight-line winds aren’t going to cut a tree in half,” Napp said. “It will be blow them over, but it isn’t going to cut them in half. It looks like they broke a toothpick over there. Wow. Unreal.”

Trees fell onto the Michael and Nancy Porter home east of the shed, causing major damage. No one was injured. The Fennimore Fire Department assisted at the scene.

The storm’s path of destruction continued eastward on County Highway Q.

“It looks like a war zone down there,” Napp said of the Paul and Paula Bender property at 13515 County Highway Q.

Science Operations Officer Dan Baumgardt and a colleague with the National Weather Service in La Crosse observed the damage at the Bender property Monday morning.

“We try to piece together what happened and what the path is,” Baumgardt said. “We look at the damage and basically, if it is a narrow path, it is usually a tornado.

“We take a look at the debris and try to rate how strong it is.”

A camper, automobiles and several trees were destroyed at the Bender property.

“These folks here got hit pretty hard,” Baumgardt said. “All the lumber damage you see there, when the trees are snapped like that, it is indicative of a tornado.

“But then you have strange things happening, like the power lines are still up. You had a strong tornado on the ground that came through here, but didn’t touch the power lines.”

The Benders were unaware Sunday night of the tornado’s approach.

“It happened really fast and we didn’t know anything was happening” Paula said. “We just thought it was another storm.

“Then windows were breaking and stuff like that, so we knew something was going on. It is pretty crazy. Just a couple of minutes and it is gone.”

The National Weather Service reported Monday an EF1 tornado originated on County Highway Q, approximately two miles east of Fennimore. An EF1 tornado is capable of producing wind gusts 86-110 MPH.

“It is pretty devastating,” Paula said. “If I think about it too long, I will start bawling.

“It is devastating. You work your whole life for this and it is gone. But it can be replaced. I am just glad everybody was safe.”

Over 30 people gathered at the Bender property Monday morning to assist with cleanup.

“They are awesome,” Paula said of the volunteers. “We couldn’t do it without them.”

Rosell and Marilyn Kephart were camping in Illinois as the tornado took aim at their farm at 13410 Tormey Road.

Eight buildings on the Kephart farm were destroyed, as well as two concrete (stave) silos. The Kephart’s house sustained moderate damage.

Rosell was born on the farm 68 years ago. He and Marilyn recently celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

“I had a career teaching,” Marilyn said. “I helped on the farm, I put in crops, I laid hay and all that kind of stuff. But I had something else to do when Rosell didn’t. It is hard.

“Yes, we have damage, but I have pictures and all that stuff that can’t be replaced. It is rough, but I know for a lot of people it is a lot worse.”

Dan Cauffman has rented land on the Kephart farm for 15 years. He was joined by volunteers, including multiple members of the Amish community, to clear debris Monday morning.

“I have never seen anything like it, and I don’t need to see it again,” Dan said. “Thank God for good neighbors.”

The Kepharts have been overwhelmed by the response of friends, neighbors and even strangers that have lent a hand in the wake of the storm.

“We personally don’t know any of the Amish,” Marilyn said. “Dan knew a couple of them and they were here before we got here yesterday, ready to work. It looks totally different already today, from yesterday.

“The calls and all the food ... Fennimore is kind of notorious for that. It is just remarkable. There is no way to ever thank everyone individually because I don’t even have any idea who all was here.

“I do know we would have been lost without Dan. He has organized things and no matter what mention we need, he is on the phone and knows someone who has it. I just can’t say how grateful we are to him.”

Gov. Scott Walker arrived at Fennimore Middle/High School via helicopter shortly after 10 a.m. and toured County Highway Q and the Kephart farm, where he spoke with Rosell and Marilyn, and volunteers

“It is heart-wrenching,” Walker said following his tour of the Kephart farm. “You talk to the owners here, and even though he rents it out, this has been in his family since the 1930s. It is very traumatic.

“On the other hand, the real optimistic thing is when you see all these folks – many of them aren’t family and friends of theirs – they are just neighbors. That is the nice thing about living here in Wisconsin, people tend to come out and help their neighbors.”